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Jax Hts. ‘mayor’ off to Oscars via Colombian film

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Tobon, who community members affectionately refer to as the area's own Marlon Brando, shared the silver screen with the breakthrough star in the heart-wrenching tale of a Colombian girl turned drug mule who lands in Jackson Heights. Sitting behind a cluttered desk in the tiny Roosevelt Avenue travel agency he has run for decades, Tobon said Monday he was ecstatic about Sandino's Academy Award nomination for best actress in the homespun film, much of which was filmed in Jackson Heights."Imagine the excitement, it was so beautiful," said Tobon, who proudly displays a poster for the film on his shop's front door. The 54-year-old Jackson Heights resident, who played Don Fernando - a screen adaptation of himself - in the film that opened to broad critical acclaim in April, got the news while watching the Academy Awards nomination ceremony on television last month.Tobon, also known as the mayor of Little Colombia, moved from Cisneros Antioque, Colombia, to Jackson Heights in 1968. Since then, the hearty but mild-mannered man has become a focal point for Queens' thriving immigrant community, offering assistance to those with nowhere else to turn and helping to arrange a proper burial for those beyond his help. Tobon has helped repatriate the bodies of more than 400 drug mules, people who died transporting narcotics across international borders in their stomachs. The movie has broken down barriers, exposing the desperate world of the Colombian men and woman who turn to the international drug trade as their only means of escape from the economic and social chains that bind them, Tobon said, recalling a screening the previous day at a nursing home."I've watched the film a lot of times, but I watched it last night with a group of very conservative elderly people," Tobon said. "When I walked in there, they almost didn't look at me because they saw me as if I was some kind of drug dealer. But they watched the movie and when they saw (Catalina's character) make it through customs, all the old folks applauded. They were feeling her plight."Mildrey Valderrama, a client who visited Tobon's agency Monday, said the movie played well in the heavily Colombian section of Jackson Heights where it premiered. She praised local filmmaker Joshua Marston and the cast for chronicling the dark side of life in her country without losing a human touch."At the end of the movie everyone applauded," she said.Tobon's role in "Maria Full of Grace" has changed things for the unlikely movie star. Already well-known before the film, Tobon said people of all nationalities up and down 74th Street stop and salute him."Strange things have been happening," Tobon said. "The other day I went to a Colombian restaurant and everyone started clapping."The film has already raked in more than 26 international awards, Tobon said. The Oscar nomination came as a logical, albeit somewhat unexpected accolade for the cast and crew that had only dared to joke about winning the award, he said.Tobon said he will go to Hollywood for the Feb. 27 award ceremony."Obviously, everyone is thrilled," he said.The movie, which is in Spanish with English subtitles, is available now on DVD.On the Web: www.mariafullofgrace.comReach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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